AIR FORCE UNITS IN CHICAGO
By Colonel Stetson Siler, USAF, Retired
There is a long history of Air Force units operating in the Chicago area. Both Midway and O’Hare Airports hosted reserve and guard units over many years. Both airports have military connections in their names. In 1949, the Chicago City Council thought that a fitting tribute to sailors and airmen who fought in the Battle of Midway, one of the most famous battles in the history of the United States Navy, would be to rename the Chicago Municipal Airport as Midway Airport. A memorial display of photos from the battle, along with a Dauntless Dive Bomber is on display at the entrance to Concourse A at the airport. The City Council simultaneously voted to rename Orchard Field in the Northwest Corner of the city O’Hare Field, in honor of Medal of Honor winner, naval aviator, and Chicagoan LCDR "Butch" O’Hare. O’Hare was the Navy’s first ace in World War II, and Medal of Honor winner.
MILITARY UNITS AT MIDWAY. One of the most famous units associated with Midway Airport was the 126 Air Refueling Wing of the Illinois Air National Guard. The 126, through many unit re-designations and changes of aircraft and mission, is the oldest Air National Guard Unit in Illinois. The unit spent 72 years in Chicago, including 27 at Midway, and 45 at O’Hare Field, and has been at downstate Scott AFB since 1999. The 126 traces its history back to the formation of the 108th Observation Squadron, 33rd Division Aviation on 1 July 1927 at Chicago Municipal Airport. The squadron was authorized 16 officers, 74 enlisted and was assigned PT-1 Trusty aircraft.
No less than George C. Marshall was a member of the 33 Division from November 1933 to August 1936 as a Senior Instructor. He later served as the Chief of Staff of the United States Army during World War II, and then as Secretary of State under President Harry Truman. In 1930, Douglas O-2H biplanes were assigned to the 108th Observation Squadron, followed by Douglas O-38 biplanes in 1935. In their state role in 1937, the unit performed levee reconnaissance missions, food and medicine drops over flood ravaged Southern Illinois. After war broke out in Europe in 1939, preparedness for war increased in the United States. As part of the preparedness program, 4,800 members of the 33 Division, including the 108th Squadron, mobilized in 1940. The unit reequipped with the North American O-47 biplanes.
The order to active service came in February, 1941, ten months before the attack by the Japanese on Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor. The unit remained in the Zone of the Interior (ZI), and its missions included anti-submarine patrols, search and rescue over the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and mail delivery to troops in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. With the perceived threat to US territory decreasing by 1943, the 108th Observation Squadron was formally deactivated and its members were assigned to other active duty units. After World War II, numerous unit deactivation's, re-designations, and reassignments occurred as the services quickly downsized. Some of these actions would affect the units at Chicago Municipal Airport, soon to be renamed Midway. The first of these was in 1947, when the 56th Fighter Wing was succeeded by the 66th Fighter Wing and with it came the 344th Bombardment Group, later re-designated the 126 Bombardment Group. In 1950, the 66th Fighter Wing was re-designated to the 126th Composite Wing, and in 1951, the 126th Composite Wing became the 126th Bombardment Wing with assigned units the 126th Bombardment Group, the 168th Bombardment Squadron and the reactivated 108th Bombardment Squadron. Martin B-26 Marauder and Douglas C-47 Sky Train aircraft were assigned to the unit during this period.
Many reserve and guard units were activated to support the Korean Conflict. In 1951, the 126th Bombardment Wing activated at Merignac Air Base in Bordeaux, France, and later relocated to Laon Air Base in France to back fill units sent to Korea. As the Korean War ended in 1953, the 126th Bombardment Wing was re-designated the 126th Fighter-Bomber Wing and equipped with the F-51 Mustang aircraft. The F-51 was then the military designation of the famous World War II P-51. By the end of the Korean War, the F-51 was being phased out of the active Air Force inventory and assigned to reserve and guard units.
The era of active military flying units being assigned to Midway ended 23 August 1954, when the 108th Fighter Bomber Squadron assigned to the 126th Fighter Bomber Group, 126th Fighter Bomber Wing, Illinois ANG, was relocated to O'Hare International Airport. The Headquarters of the 126th Fighter Bomber Wing remained at Midway Airport until June 1958 when it too relocated to O'Hare.
MILITARY UNITS AT O’HARE. The original Douglas plant on the northeast corner of Orchard Field evolved into an Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve facility after World War II.After moving from Midway, the 126 continued at O’Hare until 1999, changing from an air defense to an air refueling mission in 1961, and starting with KC-97s and converting to KC-135s in 1976.
It now operates from Scott AFB near O’Fallon in Southern Illinois, about 20 miles east of St Louis; it is still operating KC-135s. The 338 Bomb Group flew B-29 Superfortresses out of Orchard Field from 1947 to the summer of 1949 before being replaced by the 437th Troop Carrier Group, which flew Curtiss C-46 Commandos until being activated for the Korean War on 14 March 1951. Its aircraft and personnel were deployed to various units in South Korea and Japan. In the summer of 1952, the 437 returned to Chicago. During the 1950’s, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at a fever pitch; with it came the development of a substantial air defense establishment to counter a potential attack over the North Pole by Soviet bombers. A large network of ground based radars and fighter interceptor units lined the approaches to the United States and Canada. A number of fighter interceptor units were stationed at O’Hare during this period, including both reserve and active duty units. During the Korean War, the 62d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was transferred to O’Hare Field, flying F-86 Sabres. The 62d FIS remained at O'Hare until 1 October 1959, becoming part of the 56th Fighter Group, and later being upgraded to the F-86D interceptor version of the Sabre. In addition, the federalized Oregon Air National Guard 142d Fighter-Interceptor Wing was stationed at O'Hare from 1 March 1951 to 6 February 1952. Other Air Defense squadrons assigned to the 56th FIW were the 42d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (1953–1955) (F-86D) and the 63d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (1955–1958) (F-86D/L).
In 1960, the bomber threat to the United States was being eclipsed by concern over Soviet ballistic missiles, and the need for active duty air defense bases was diminishing. The Air Force inactivated its active-duty air defense units at O'Hare and returned the station to the Air Force Reserve to base reserve units under the 2840th Air Reserve Training Wing. O'Hare Air Reserve Station was also long-time home to the 928th Tactical Airlift Wing, later the 928th Airlift Wing (928 AW), of the Air Force Reserve, flying the C-130 Hercules. Among many operations supported during the C-130’s time in Chicago include Operation PROVIDE PROMISE, supporting the long-lasting operations in the Balkans during the early and mid-1990’s.
The 1993 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) recommended the closure of O'Hare Air Reserve Station as proposed by the municipal government of the City of Chicago and the transfer of both the 126 ARW and 928 AW to new facilities to be constructed at downstate Scott AFB, with much of the associated costs to be borne by the City of Chicago. The 1995 BRAC Commission modified the closure of O'Hare Air Reserve Station as recommended by the 1993 BRAC by deactivating the 928th AW, rather than relocating the unit, and distributing its C-130 aircraft to Air Force Reserve C-130 units at Dobbins ARB, Georgia and Peterson AFB, Colorado.Following the closure of the O'Hare Air Reserve Station, the former USAF facilities were redeveloped for air cargo and general aviation.
Sources:126 Air Refueling Wing Website Lynch, Christopher, Chicago’s Midway Airport, Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2002The Air Force Blue Book, 1959 Warnock, Timothy, ed, Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations, Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2000 Wikopedia Encyclopedia.